Friday, October 17, 2008

What way forward for broadband...

I spent the afternoon of September 30th in Dublin Castle at the "invitation" of minister Eamonn Ryan. The occasion were the "Next Generation Broadband Forum Consultative Forum" aimed at formulating the long term policies in this area. This was an interesting and relatively new approach by the government that actually showed an interest in the opinion of people in the "broadband industry", the interest groups and the "average users".
The event was taking place in a large conference room with about 14 tables with 6-8 people per table. I shared a table with Sean Galagher, Antoin O Lachtnain, Damian Callan (blogger), Aebhric Mc Gibney (Director of Policy & Communications Dublin Chamber of Commerce) and a few others.
The afternoon was very tightly organised with specific topics to be discussed by each table. Each topic was given 30 minutes after which the table "moderator" would present the tables conclusions to the room.
Topics to be discussed were:
- "What broadband do we use"
- "How will Next Generation Broadband be delivered"

The discussions were very frank and some very valid points were raised. The general consensus was that the current approach does not work and that a change of direction is badly needed. Also the term "joined up thinking" was used often targeted at different departments and private sector operators actually working and thinking together. We also had a very good discussions about how broadband is used and what speeds and capacities will be needed towards 2010 and 2015. It was surprising to find out that by most people Youtube was still seen as a "new technology" and an example of future broadband use. Very few (if anybody) had heard of Qik, Seesmic, Vimeo or other video based applications. My Twittering of the discussions also raised some eyebrows.
One point that was raised by our table is that we should look at "untethered broadband service" meaning not just broadband into residential or business premises but also broadband to mobile devices and in public spaces. Also Broadband is not just an economic force but also a social & demographic driver and should be recognised as such. The provision of a widely available broadband service will change the make-up, quality and spread of our society.
As for required speeds we put forward 10Mbps by 2010 and 100Mbps by 2020 as an indication of what would be needed. However it was also agreed that quantity was as important as quality. This in relation to issues such as contention ratios and synchronous upload and download speeds.
Something that became apparent from the other tables' conclusions was that the private sector has no interest in rolling out broadband in areas currently not serviced without a guarantee of revenue.

The round table discussions ended at 3:20 at which time there was a well needed coffee break followed by a number of break-out sessions. I decided to participate in the session on "Models for open access" which looked like the one drawing the most people.
There were people from all the telcos, Comreg and some government departments. Initially the discussion was full of woolly talking with now specifics about the specifics of open access. I quickly dragged it back into reality by actually asking the group "what the open access should be to" i.e. privately owned or publicly owned infrastructure. Thus raised a lot of hackles as most incumbents did not want to build an infra-structure in unserved areas but also did not want to the government to intervene in the market. A director from Smart Telecom actually made a statement that their market research had shown that "SME's did not want broadband" and that the should only be government support for (privately owned) companies to supply broadband to multi-nationals and large corporates (he forgot to mention that this is exactly the market that Smart is targeting). Besides utterly stupid, his statement is indicative of the thinking within the industry. Everyone wants to run a closed shop with as only target immediate ROI and a serious lack of long term vision is prevalent.
I was pleasantly surprised to notice that there was a certain level of agreement with or at least interest in) my opinion from both the people from the various government departments as well as Comreg. I put forward that the recent & current as failed miserably and that a drastic change of policy and thinking is needed.
Privately owned companies clearly have no interested in rolling out broadband in underserved areas as there is no profit to be made. While it shows a lack of vision it is understandable as they are only looking at their bottom line.
What is needed in Ireland is a completely new broadband infrastructure. The current infra-structure could not support a sufficient broadband service even if we wanted it.
What is needed is a government owned broadband (fiber) network that will bring fast backhaul connectivity into every community. This infra-structure should be opened up to everyone on a fee paid basis and run by either a government body or a private operator for the government. As long as they do a better job than E-net.
Last mile delivery of broadband should be left to the private sector but this backhaul infra-structure opens up the market and will make service delivery in 90% of the country an achievable target. Obviously my complete proposal on this is ever so slightly more elaborate and detailed than just that but it surmises it nicely.
As you can imagine this proposal did not go down well with the telcos. Because "jayzus didn't they go and spend buckets of money to bring us into the broadband heaven that we are in"....
After this frank exchange of opinion there were 20 minutes for all the breakout session to present their opinions and conclusions. Unfortunately the minister was no longer present as he was needed in the Dail to assist in dealing with some "financial problems".
This was followed by a brief "thank you" from the organisers which ended the day.
I must say that I was impressed by the overall level of the discussions and the frank exchanges of opinion and I hope that all the views and opinions will be considered by the minister and his department when they draw up there long term policies.

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